The buzz of activity from the room where Steven was being treated came surging out to them as a doctor came into the corridor. Both Fran and John looked up simultaneously as they heard the door swing open, Fran, her red-rimmed eyes betraying an absolute terror of what the doctor might be about to tell her, while John’s expression remained cast like stone as he raised his blue eyes to make direct and unflinching contact with the doctor’s.
“I’m Fran’s brother,” John said, getting to his feet, aware of Fran following his lead, harbouring close, her hand seizing his arm as if to steady herself.
Acknowledging John, the doctor related to them the fact that having checked Steven he appeared to have suffered very little injury except for some rather superfluous cuts and bruises. He had received a cut above his eyebrow where his head had hit the steering wheel and they were dealing with that, but he was conscious and had been since the ambulance crew had arrived at the scene.
“He’s going to feel very bruised but I would say he’s been extremely fortunate. It could have been a lot worse than the minor injuries he appears to have received,” the doctor said, allowing himself to smile reassuringly at Fran.
“He’s going to be all right?” Fran questioned, still fretful, unable to believe that history hadn’t repeated itself, that she wasn’t about to have to watch another person she loved die in this hospital.
“But there was so much blood,” Fran said.
“It looked a lot worse than it was.”
Tears of relief began to trickle down Fran’s cheeks. “Can I see him?”
The doctor smiled compassionately. “Of course. Come with me.”
As she made to follow the doctor, she turned back to John. “I’ll see him on my own,” she said.
“Of course.” John watched as Fran disappeared with the doctor through the door to the treatment room beyond and slumped back down onto his seat again, staring dismally towards the white washed wall opposite, his thoughts taking flight to Margaret, wishing that she was sitting beside him. He could still smell the faint vestiges of her gorgeous scent still lingering on his clothes, bearing testimony to the closeness they’d shared. How could it be that in the space of half an hour he had gone from standing by the window of the Honeymoon Suite at the hotel, the whole of Milton lit up against the indigo sky, to the barren hell of this hospital? The contrast was too harsh, the abrupt note on which the evening had finished like a knife slicing into him with cruel, grim satisfaction.
The fact that Steven was going to make a full recovery didn’t lessen the chill in John’s heart. He tried uselessly to distance himself from the memory of his father but it was futile. He might as well be twenty again, so real did the remembrance of that day seem now. He felt as though he was waiting as he had once waited. Waiting and hoping; waiting and willing that life would prevail over death, only to find that it was too late and that his father had gone, even though the girl who had been seated in the back seat behind him was alive, uninjured. It had been the way the dice had fallen, a gamble lost. His father had been killed, torn from their lives by one seemingly reckless act of desperation, but Fran had been saved.
John put his head in his hands, his fingers coursing through his black hair. He loathed the smell of the place; he hated the fact that death seemed to harbour in every corner, ready to pounce at any given minute…
The approach of footsteps, the quick rhythmical tapping of heels, echoed down the corridor towards him, jolting him out of his reverie. As he raised his head he saw his mother bedecked in the bleak sobriety of her trademark black, her face set into a gaunt mask that only marginally brightened as she noticed him sitting there.
“With Steven. His condition wasn’t as dire as Fran believed it to be. He’s going to be all right.”
“Thank God for that! She’s already had to live through the trauma of what happened with your father. I don’t think she’d have been able to cope with Steven dying as well.” Her relief was palpable, but as she studied her son’s sombre face, the weary look in his barren eyes, the dejected slump of his usually strong shoulders, fresh worry clouded her expression. “Did you tell Margaret what had happened?”
“Of course. I couldn’t do anything else.”
“And she understood?”
“Of course she understood. What sort of person do you think she is?” His mother’s probing was something he had no wish to be subjected to. He didn’t want to talk about Margaret; he wanted to keep the evening they had shared to himself. She was the one bright light in his lugubrious existence, the one person with whom he shared an amazing empathy in spite of his erstwhile compulsion to shackle himself to a life that bore no relation to actually living.
“Where did you go?” his mother asked, ignoring the tension in his voice.
“To a restaurant Nick recommended.”
“Did you have a pleasant meal?”
“Yes we did.”
His mother inclined her head, looking pensive. They fell silent. His mother sat awkwardly, her hands wringing in her lap, casting anxious glances in the direction of the door to the room where her daughter and son-in-law were. Agitated, his hands digging into his pockets, John stood up and started to pace the floor, his head down, feeling the past snapping like a dog baying at his heels.
His father had been so far beyond reach that no one had been able to help him. His father – whose actions had become increasingly erratic as the situation in which he’d found himself had whirled completely out of control. His father, who had shown him how to ride a bike, to play cricket, to catch fish in a river just outside Milton. His father, who he had worshipped so much as a child, who he had wanted so much to be like, who he had revered above everyone else. His father, who had taken his dreams and smashed them into jagged shards of bitter disappointment. His father, who had gambled and won, gambled and lost. Gambled until there was nothing left to gamble with until he couldn’t bear to face up to the responsibility of having placed his wife and two children into a financially precarious situation; and who, on the day he had gone to collect Fran from her dance class, had gambled the hotel, realised too late what he had done and begun to drink to blot out the horrendous reality of it all.
The car that he’d been driving had ploughed into a tree and from what one eyewitness had said it had seemed to be a deliberate action by the driver. Suicide had been mooted although never proven. He had died having never regained consciousness and Fran, physically unscathed and saved by her seatbelt, had never really been able to offer any true explanation of what had occurred, always saying in the months and years afterwards that it had happened too quickly, that she had not seen it coming.
“Sit down, John. Please!” his mother said sharply, shaking her head in ill-concealed impatience.
He stopped moving but the last thing he could do was sit down. At least if he was moving he had to think about putting one foot in front of the other. If he sat he would think and he didn’t want to have to do that – not any more. He wanted to erase it all. He wanted to forget the past, to think of the future – a future that flirted with him and danced just beyond his grasp still, but which was coming closer with every day that passed.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked his mother, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of the coffee machine.
She declined. He took out a couple of coins of loose change from his pocket and found a pound to slot into the mouth of the machine. It gobbled the coin up and dispensed the plastic cup and then the coffee he’d pressed the button for. Taking a sip of the insipid liquid he wished he hadn’t bothered.
They finally left the hospital at about two in the morning, after Steven had been transferred to another ward from A&E and a somewhat lachrymose Fran had been persuaded by the nurses that it would be quite safe for her to go home and try to get some sleep. Steven’s condition was stable and there seemed to be no indication that he would worsen as the hours passed.
Fran and his mother went straight to bed once they returned home but John, totally unable to settle, remained in the living room on his own, restlessly pacing the carpet for some time before pouring himself a glass of brandy in the hope of it thawing the numbness inside him. He stared out of the window, searching the darkness and the widely scattered lights that burnt like tiny fires across the darkened landscape. Silence swathed around him; he unhooked the window and lifted it so that it gaped open-mouthed before him. The sultry heat of the night air washed over him. He closed his eyes in an attempt to empty his mind, breathing deeply, allowing the air, so fresh after that of the hospital, to filter into his lungs.
A noise behind him made John turn abruptly and he saw that it was Fran, her silky fuchsia dressing gown knotted tightly around her middle and from the hem of which a pair of pale pyjama bottoms peeped. She looked so jaded, her eyes swollen from so many hours of crying, her complexion wan. He smiled, watching as she padded bare-footed across the carpet towards him, her arms crossed before her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, joining him by the window, glancing at the glass in his hand. “What are you drinking?”
“Brandy. Would you like me to pour one for you?”
“Will it help?”
“It might help you to sleep.”
She nodded, indicating her agreement and John went to pour some of the spirit from the decanter into another glass before bringing it back to her. “Thanks.” Her nose wrinkled as she took her first sip, although it didn’t seem to deter her.
“Thank you for coming to the hospital tonight,” she said after a few moments in which neither of them said anything.
“It’s all right,” he said, trying not to reveal to her the fact that it had been one of the hardest things he’d had to do in a long time.
But she already knew that; it was in her face, in her brown eyes that were so like their father’s. “It felt as though history was repeating itself,” she said quietly, averting her eyes to stare out of the open window. “Steven reminds me of Father,” Fran went on, still not taking her eyes from the shrouded vista. “Too much sometimes.”
John frowned, his blue eyes searching her profile. “In what way?”
She hesitated, appearing unsure. He waited as she took down the rest of her drink, as though in doing so the brandy would give her the courage she needed to continue. “Steven’s been burrowing money,” she began, quietly. “Taking out loans, running up debts on our credit cards. I didn’t realise what was going on until some people came to the house because he’d defaulted on a payment and took some of our things away to cover what was owed. It was so awful, John. Having those people in the house, going through our things as though they didn’t even belong to us…I hated it. I hated Steven for doing it.” She looked up then, straight into John’s eyes. “I couldn’t stay in the house and in the end I came here without even telling him because I couldn’t stand seeing everything we had being taken away from us – even the house, John. The bank is saying they’ll repossess if things aren’t sorted out.” Tears began to slip down her cheeks in silence, all the worry and misery she’d striven to keep so well hidden from John, from their mother, finally thrusting itself to the fore in an unstoppable rush.
Money. Why, John wondered, did it always have to come down to that? His father and now Steven. One had squandered what he had spent years building into a profitable sum, lured by the throw of the dice, the shuffle of the cards. The other had frittered away what wasn’t even his, wanting everything, affording nothing.
“Why didn’t you tell me what was happening when I first asked you what was wrong?” John asked, unable to believe what she’d just told him. “Why make up all the nonsense about Steven decorating?”
She gave a passive shrug, staring into her glass, too ashamed to meet his eye. “Because I knew it would bring everything that happened with Father back. Can’t you see how similar they are, John? The only difference between them is that Steven hasn’t killed himself like Father did.” She raised her hand to wipe her tears away, to try unsuccessfully to stem their flow. “I suppose I should feel lucky that I wasn’t in the car this time.”
John felt his insides begin to churn, all the pain and helplessness returning with the same force he’d felt at the time of his father’s death: the fervent wish that he’d acted differently, the blaming of himself that he’d ignored the warning signs that had been there – that had been in plain sight all the time.
“Do you still love Steven?” John asked, echoing a question Margaret had put to him once when they’d argued about what had happened between him and Steven in the stillroom. That particular day John recalled he had told Margaret that he hadn’t even considered it because he didn’t feel it was any of his business. But it was, he knew that now, because he wanted Fran to be happy. He was her brother and he cared about her. She couldn’t help that she had fallen in love with Steven any more than he could help falling in love with Margaret.
Fran met his eyes. “Yes, “she said clearly. “Yes, I do.”
Margaret turned onto her side, the silence of her bedroom disturbed only by the faint rise and fall of her breath and the intermittent droning of a car passing by. She couldn’t sleep, her mind still buzzing with the evening passed and the horrific way in which it had drawn to its conclusion. She found herself willing her thoughts to connect with John’s across the divide separating them, this man she’d been dragged irrepressibly towards like flotsam bobbing on the surface of the tide, forever enslaved to follow the currents that lay beneath.
Safe in the privacy of that beautiful room at the hotel her whole body had been roused by the touch of his mouth and the restrained responsiveness of his fingertips as they had wandered over her back, rubbing against the fabric of her dress and jacket until he had at last raised his hands to her shoulders and pushed the jacket away, catching it before it rustled to the floor, tossing it carelessly to the chaise lounge. When he had made that first direct contact with the bare skin just below the back of her neck her heart had moved at the sensuality of his caress so that she had arched into him, completely bedazzled by the overpowering need to be close to him, seeking his lips with shameless longing…
Who knew where it would have led had they not been interrupted by that wretched phone? Who knew which of them, if either, would have pulled back first if they had stayed as they’d been…
But the phone call had changed everything. The sultry heat of the room had grown chilly suddenly as the mood had shifted between them. She had seen the look in his eyes, the shadows that drew a veil across them, immediately shutting her out and opening up that gaping void over which she could never seem to cross.
She recalled the deepening furrows that had scarred his forehead when he’d come off the phone to his mother. His body had enclosed hers, but she had felt a part of him had vanished into that abyss between them, mentally distancing them, if not physically. She had told him that she knew that his place was with Fran; with her actions she had shown him she’d understood.
I love you. She called the words out to him in her mind, hoping that by some miracle of telepathy that he would hear her. I love you.
It was three in the morning before John went to bed and then he lay there with his head throbbing, the two headache tablets he had taken seeming to have no effect at all. God, how he wanted Margaret, to be able to turn over and find that she was beside him, to be able to draw her body close to his, to hold her.
For some reason he found himself remembering that fragile yellow rose that he’d returned to her the other day and the look on her face when she’d taken it from him. It was a symbol of her past, of her life before she’d come to Milton, before he had ever met her. She clearly cherished what it meant to her, but it epitomized their different lives so eloquently. Margaret had kept her past with her while he had hidden his away. In Margaret’s parents’ lounge there were photographs, moments forever captured and to smile back upon, whereas there were none in his living room. He could still recall his mother taking an empty box and putting every last one into it because she could not bear what they represented.
He closed his eyes, conjuring Margaret’s beautiful face into his mind, seeing her lips tilt into a smile, her voice calling out to him across the Milton streets, telling him that she loved him…
John woke at his usual time, just before six, having spent most of the night in a haunted half-sleep. He dragged himself up and went to have a shower, letting the soothing warm water flow over his torpid body before getting dressed in readiness for the day. He had to work, to focus on something; he couldn’t sit doing nothing. His mother would be able to sit with Fran, to give her the company she would undoubtedly need. All he wanted to do was to just plough on with the daily grind because at least he knew where he was and he was in control of the situation.
Fran, patently exhausted from her outpourings to him, was still in bed when he left the flat. His mother had only just stirred herself when he was about to walk out of the door, surprised to see him leaving as he usually did.
“Aren’t you exhausted?” she asked.
“I’m fine. If you need me you know where I am,” he said as he kissed her briefly on the cheek. He met her hawk eyes apologetically, hoping that she would understand why he had to distance himself from what was happening with Fran and Steven. “I can’t sit at that hospital all day, Mother. I have to work, to carry on as normal – or as much as I can.”
His mother, resigned to the fact that he was dealing with the situation in the only he way he knew how, bobbed her head in acknowledgement. “Have you had any breakfast? You ought to eat.”
“I’ll have something later,” he told her firmly, making it clear that he wasn’t going to be dissuaded. “Now I have to get to work.”
Margaret didn’t see John first thing when she came into work. Helena was already there and he had gone straight up to his office as soon as he could get away from reception. The news of Fran’s husband’s accident, having managed in the space of those few intervening hours to filter through the hotel’s grapevine, was related by Helena to Margaret almost as soon as she stepped foot in the door.
“How did Mr Thornton seem?” Margaret asked, trying to sound casual rather than anxious, feigning absolutely no previous knowledge about what had happened.
“A bit distracted, I thought – well, he would be wouldn’t he? He didn’t say anything about it but then he doesn’t talk about anything to do with the family. He doesn’t really talk about anything except work come to think of it, so I don’t know how his brother-in-law is or anything like that.”
Margaret smiled, wondering whether she could manage to contrive a way to go up to his office without alerting Helena too much. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of any sort of reason – except her own desire to see him again, to be in the same room as him. She was staggered that he was even working in view of what had happened with Steven. Certainly, she hadn’t expected it and had assumed that that was why he had told her last night that he would phone her at some stage during the day. As it was, he was working, he was one floor above her and she couldn’t even go up to him without drawing attention to herself.
Her shift passed. She spoke to people on the phone, she talked with guests, she took bookings, answered enquiries, typed letters. But she didn’t see John or his mother all day. He didn’t come downstairs at all and on the one occasion that she might have been able to see him, it was Helena who took the mail up to him as soon as the postman arrived with it.
When the reception phone rang just before three-thirty that afternoon it was Margaret who picked it up and John’s voice she heard on the other end asking if someone could bring any post for signing up to him. Until she spoke he didn’t know who he was speaking to and when she replied that she’d do what he asked, she heard the tone of his voice alter, become softer, more intimate.
“Hurry,” was all he said.
She put the phone down and grabbed the pile of post, popping her head around the door of the reception office in which Helena was sat finishing something on the computer. “Mr Thornton’s just asked for the post so I’m going to pop it up to him.”
Helena smiled. “Good luck,” she said, as though going to see John was like facing the firing squad. “I’ll probably be gone by the time you get back down so I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Free at last from reception and her shift finally at an end after what had seemed to be the longest day of her life, Margaret fairly flew up the stairs to John’s office, knocking softly upon the door before opening it up to go inside. As soon as John saw her in the doorway he was on his feet and striding rapidly towards her, one hand pulling her into the room and pushing the door firmly shut, even as the other captured her to him, his mouth immediately seeking hers. Her arms went about him instinctively, revelling in the closeness, the post falling with a flutter to the floor, lying forgotten at their feet.
“It’s so good to see you,” he murmured, his mouth coming close to her ear, his lips brushing feather light over her neck.
She felt her heart turn over at his words because they mirrored her own feelings, because she had wanted to be with him so much. Tenderly, she touched his cheek, rough with the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow. “How’s Steven? Is it very serious?” she asked.
Leaving the post where it was he took her hand and led her to the Chesterton and sat her down beside him, his hand holding fast to hers.
“He’s going to be all right. I don’t think the doctors can believe that he got away with just a few cuts and bruises.”
“Your sister must be relieved. I can’t imagine what she must have been feeling.”
“She’s dealing with it.” He didn’t want to elaborate any further. He was too tired to talk about it all. He wanted to think about something else, he wanted to just enjoy the moment, of holding Margaret in his arms and feeling her beautifully pliant body against his own.
“When did you get home from the hospital?” She was still thinking about it, still wanting to know more, her fingers interlacing in his hair, her eyes questing his face with concern.
“I didn’t go to bed until about three this morning.”
“Did you get any sleep?”
“Not really, no.”
“If it’s any consolation, nor did I.”
“All I wanted was to be with you,” he murmured, running his hand the length of her arm in a long, lingering caress, seeing her lips part in pleasure even though he wasn’t even touching her bare skin. He wondered whether it would ever have been possible to sleep with her in his bed and encircled in his arms if she had been there with him. He doubted it. Every time she came close it was as though something intransigent pulled him towards her, further reaffirming and strengthening the chains that bound them so irrevocably to each other.
A faint bloom lit her cheeks and yet her eyes seemed to glow at his words, as though the fact that he had wished she’d been with him meant everything to her.
“I was thinking about you too,” she admitted, resting her head on his shoulder, nestling closer. He scattered butterfly kisses into her mahogany hair, before he couldn’t stop himself from lifting her face towards his with his index finger and finding her lips, enticing her to respond to his kiss and quickly rekindling the embers still smouldering between them once more.
Somehow, without even being conscious of it happening, she had moved so that her head was resting against the leather arm of the seat and her body was half-reclining back into the upholstery. John was hovering over her from where he was perched on the edge of the seat, his breathing as laboured as hers.
She could hardly believe her own actions, how easily she could succumb to the emotions that he stirred so wildly within her. She had never been like this with Henry; not once had she ever felt the complete and utter abandonment of the moment as she did now with John. Not once had she been so filled with love that it transcended everything else, so much so that she wanted to be swept into the depths of it and remain there forever. Wantonly her fingers twined in his hair before spreading out against his scalp to bring him nearer.
“What if your mother comes in?” Her muffled voice was a ragged whisper against the side of his mouth, her cheek grazing against his with languorous pleasure.
He heard her words and groaned hoarsely against her neck, his tongue flicking across her sensitively charged skin. She turned her head slightly and answered his beckoning mouth with hers, even as she tried to talk herself into lifting her head up from the arm of the seat, failing completely in managing to master the feelings that consumed her.
“I‘d hope she’d walk straight back out again and leave us in peace! And that goes for anyone else,” he responded huskily in answer to her question, his hand dragging at the band ineffectively holding her already dishevelled hair in place, moaning as his hand drowned in the shimmering mahogany waterfall. “You’re so lovely.” His mouth moved more urgently against hers. “I need you. God knows how much I need you.” He began to trace her silhouette, growing ever bolder across the surface of her blouse as he explored the contours of her body, the narrow indentation of her waist, the gentle flare of her hips, the undulating curve of her breasts. Every touch seemed to pierce her, to set her alight, every sensation pulsating to her very core.
“Don’t say anything,” he said in a persuasive whisper, gathering her to him and tugging her jacket off her shoulders just as he had last night. She sighed softly, glad to be divested of it, well aware that it brought her into closer physical contact with him, so that she too was driven by necessity to touch, to hold, to loosen and finally dispose of the tie that had already worked loose, allowing it to drop to the floor where her jacket lay abandoned in a navy heap.
She could hear her brain yelling at her that it had gone far enough, that she should pull away, that things were moving too swiftly…but he was sweeping her along with him, the cravings of her body all but eclipsing every rational thought…
Then, quite suddenly, he pulled away from her. Her eyes fluttered open, lifting from below her lashes to look up at him in confusion. She didn’t understand what was wrong, why he had sprung back from her so abruptly.
“What’s the matter?” Her voice was low, slightly trembling with uncertainty.
In answer to her question he cupped her face between his hands, tilting his own dark head slightly to one side and staring deeply into her eyes. “I want to make love to you,” he said.